I was never very good at playing the drums.
I’d been taking drum lessons from Tony Chirco, culminating in a “Drum Recital” attended by dutiful parents who would leave as soon as their kid performed. As one of the older kids – I was maybe 14 – I got to play with a real jazz combo that Tony had somehow persuaded to come to Connecticut. My performance featured what’s called “trading fours,” where the band would play four bars, then I would solo for four bars, back and forth. I was terrible, embarrassingly terrible. I recall the guys turning to look at me with a “Who’s that honky?” look on their faces.
I never liked to solo, probably because I couldn’t do it very well.
When I got to college I lied about having been in a combo in high school, so I became part of a group that included some real musicians. One advantage of attending a small college is that there were no other drummers who applied for the position – though I later learned that we had one other very accomplished drummer in our class.
Playing with our group was a gas. We could shift from jazz to rock, and we played most of our gigs on campus or at nearby Smith College, mixed in with a few weddings. I recall one gig at a fraternity where I accompanied a blind Black blues guitarist. I was surprised and pleased when he told me he thought I was black. It was years later that I realized he was mocking my white ass.
A lot of the fun, for me, was coming up with names for our group. Among ourselves we were “Moby Dick and the Seamen,” though we did not use that in public. For a while were “The St. Elmo’s Firemen” (we had a very heavy fire-proof helmet thing that was sometimes worn), “John Hart and the Hartbeats” (John was our sax player), and “The Route 2 Tooters.”
During my senior year I paused briefly at one of those crossroads in life when a serious rock group asked if I would join them to play gigs all over New England and eastern New York. I thought about what this would mean to my ice hockey (I was captain of the team) and my commitment to the college’s demanding academics. I declined the invitation, figuring it was better to say I was invited than to actually do it.
When I started teaching in Ann Arbor, I hooked up with another jazz group, a quartet that played Thursday nights at a local bar and restaurant. The only problem was that we finished playing at 11:00, so by the time I packed my stuff and hauled it home, it was after mid-night. Then I had to unwind. Then I had to get up at 6:00 the next morning to make it to school on time. On a number of Fridays I would give my students an impromptu writing assignment while I put my head down on the desk. The gig ended when our sax player graduated and our bass player found better musicians. My drum set sat idle for several years until I sold it to a former student after I was divorced and moved into a small apartment. Kept the sticks.
I owe my musical success to avoiding drum solos. My real pleasure, and this gave me some of the most joyful moments of my life, was helping my fellow musicians sound better – picking up a rhythm the piano guy was doing, and responding to it, or transitioning out of the sax solo into the piano solo. Listening was a big part of my playing. It’s important to listen – or so I’ve been told.